I am going to be stern here at times. I am (mostly) kidding. Maybe I should have waited to the end to tell you that.
The brilliant Scott Siskind* has a new post at Astral Codex Ten, Kids Can Recover From Missing Even Quite A Lot of School about how much effect there will be from children missing school because of CoVid. The short answer is Academically, not much. Children have gone through much worse in many times and places and caught up in a year or so. Social/cultural/moral/character development? This is hard to measure, but there may be something to that. Being Dr. Siskind and a bit obsessive, he cites a good deal of research, mercifully by linking to it. He is as cynical about schools and teachers as I am, except he’s smarter and more diligent about research.
I once thought I would be pleased if schools figured out that they aren’t there to teach academics and aren’t very good at it. (Nor have they ever been, even in the Good Old Days. I wrote about those days a decade ago, Part One and Part Two, in which I say a lot of things people will disagree with, but are nonetheless true. Schools were different but not better then. The reason you want to tell me why I’m wrong is likely something I have already heard.) The primary value of schools may always have been in their teaching of conscientiousness, group norms for behavior, and other things we would file under “character.” However, if we were to free current teachers up to teach character it would be one more excuse to teach anti-racism and other forms of How to Be a Good Liberal. Still, I can dream, because no school is going to take my advice anyway, no matter how right I am.
I mentioned that people will not much attend to what I say here, which I know because I have been in a thousand discussions about education in my life, and the same things always happen. Everyone is sure they are an expert and will tell you anecdotes about their grandfather who grew up on a farm with no electricity but went to a good old-fashioned school where they taught real content and became a chemical engineer. Damn kids don’t even know how to shoe a horse these days. Or they will give you examples of how bad things are now, or insist that things used to be better because…anecdotes. I have opinions which I will get out of the way now, which are that phonics is somewhat better than whole word, especially for poor students, and that drill in math is better than concept, especially for poor students. But it’s largely genetic and the good students are going to do fine anyway unless you beat them for stupid reasons. Whatever isn’t genetics is mostly family and neighborhood.
But it’s just oddly reflexive, that people just have to tell you these things whenever you say “education.” They have stored packets that have to be discharged.
The Teaching of Math
I start here because it gives insight into the rest of my points. Siskind is correct that we don’t use much of any of it beyond basic Algebra. A pal who is a PhD research chemist out of MIT told me recently “I never took a derivative in my entire career.” Across the table, an engineer from the Portsmouth Shipyard said “I actually did – once.” They both used fragments of the more advanced maths they had been taught, and sometimes used a particular bit repeatedly, but most of it was gone. Some people do use advanced math in their professions, but not many, and even they use only a small portion of what went by in 11th grade. But the reason all that “useless” math came into the curriculum developed over time, and is now obscured. Yet still useful. Much of math builds layer upon layer. The basic layers are stone and brick, solid things we will use all our lives: arithmetic, percentages, simple graphs. As we move along, the material they make us work with is less solid. In this analogy, they are pieces of lumber or shapes in hard plastic: basic algebra finding x, similarity of triangles. By late highschool it has become a house of cards, things few of us will ever use again: trigonometry, different bases, quadratic equations. (If one goes on in using such things, one reinforces them and makes them solid.) Yet this very artificiality is part of the point. These structures will not stay up long. You will forget them in a few years. But they are measuring how high you can build in a mostly abstract way. Algebra II turns out to be a very good dividing line for how well you can think abstractly. That’s what the math SAT is measuring.
Kids whose math education is interrupted late in school aren’t going to look as smart on those tests, because it goes away so fast. But they will still be that smart, they just won’t have shown it. If they are going on in physics, they may have to catch up. But they will.
If schools really had it together for teaching 90% of the students what would be useful, there would be 9th grade basic Algebra and Geometry, then subsequent years of Probability, Statistics (including How To Lie With Statistics), How To Estimate, and numbing drill about units of measure and converting percentages to fractions. Because that’s what most people will use. Anything above Geometry should be used only for that house-of-cards-abstract-thinking evaluation.
Recautioning about explaining to me patiently about what I haven’t considered that you need to explain to everyone.
The audience at Chicago Boyz is in no way representative of the general population. All of you are in the top 5% of intelligence, so your experiences and the experiences of your close relatives are not likely to be good examples about education. They just aren’t. If you want anecdotes I can supply them all day. I have five sons, three adopted, plus foster children. At least twenty schools. Private, public, home, technical, religious, specialty. Bring data instead, because that would involve the other 95% of the country. You wouldn’t be here reading about education online at a thought-heavy site if you weren’t smart. You might be a fool for some other reason, but you’re smart.
The Teaching of Other Academic Info
The rest of schooling bears relation to this. The 3-point essay teaches something about what is persuasive and what isn’t, but you aren’t likely to ever need it, nor diagramming a sentence. You seldom use citations in your job. (Siskind gave a humorous example of what the teaching of history is really like.) E D Hirsch was absolutely right about Cultural Literacy – for those who go on to public discussion in life. And he lost even that battle, unfortunately. Those elements are the same house of cards, though sometimes with a bit more applicability than with math. You won’t much need them, but we want to see how you do trying to make a logical argument, or at least following one. We want to see if you can show up on time, not screw up the classroom for everyone else, hand in an assignment, pay attention even if you aren’t fascinated, not cheat, accept criticism. This is what schools could be good at, and why the deterioration of behavior standards is such a crying shame. The kids that can learn this will pick it up pretty well in any situation. The others will have very few places they will ever be taught this.
It is also valuable to be taught that life isn’t fair up to a point. Schools are designed by women for girls. This has been true since the days of Tom Sawyer but has become more extreme in the last few decades. Conscientiousness and agreeableness are Big Five Personality traits where women score higher than men, and these are heavily favored in the type of schools we have throughout the Western world. Those are good traits, by the way, and I’m glad schools teach them. But they aren’t the only thing, and they put boys in the hole from kindergarten on. A little of that might be good, learning that life isn’t fair. But now that boys have twice the dropout rate and girls make the honor roll twice as often (triple for High Honors) it has clearly gone too far. For girls the unfairness comes later when they find that outside of school the rules change and they have been lied to. I fancy early feminism sprang from this.
So schools are mostly useless academically and always have been, but we haven’t got a good plan what else we are going to do with eight-year-olds during the day. What I have put forward here suggests it should be geared to teaching them to be responsible, decent folk, without much focus on penmanship or coloring in the countries of South America very, very neatly. But the content may not matter much at all. Learning to follow directions and not make excuses is likely more important than knowing exactly where Moldova is. If they don’t enjoy reading school isn’t going to change that. The basic competence of decoding with some speed, following ten-step directions to make something, and knowing that sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are things that exist may get us through.
*Siskind is the blogger from Slate Star Codex that the NYT outed last year with his real name, which is a problem in his profession. Bit of a scandal. He eventually had to leave the agency he worked for and start his own. He thinks it may all be for the best, but it was still perfidious on the part of the Times. His I Can Tolerate Anything But the Outgroup and The Toxoplasma of Rage are two of the best essays of the 21st C.